University announces fall COVID-19 testing plans for symptomatic, asymptomatic students, faculty, staff

Hannah Williford

UT announced plans for proactive and symptomatic COVID-19 testing for students, staff and faculty Tuesday morning, funded through its multimillion dollar commitment.

Proactive testing, which will be free to students and will identify asymptomatic COVID-19 cases on campus, will aim to be done at a rate of 1,000 tests per day through a saliva test, said Elisa Spradlin, assistant chief medical officer at University Health Services. Symptomatic students or who have been exposed to COVID-19 will receive a nose swab test and receive results in one to two days.

Proactive community testing will be done with TaqPath qPCR brand tests from the science company Thermo Fisher Scientific. Andreas Matouschek, who oversees proactive community testing, said around 400 proactive community tests have been distributed so far. 

Matouschek said samples will be collected in clear plastic tubes that inactivate the virus and stabilize the solution inside once closed. The sample is then transported to the lab where robots will be used to check for three separate virus genes within the sample. If two or three virus genes show up, a person is considered positive. If a single gene shows up, they will be retested. 

“(TaqPath) is considered a really good test generally amongst the options,” Matouschek said. “It has a really solid supply chain, … and it doesn't compete with a lot of the clinical systems that are out there. That way, when we ramp this up, we're not taking away tests from other needs, and I think that's a really important point.”

Spradlin said the proactive testing will occur voluntarily on a schedule that reaches out to different departments and organizations across campus through two testing sites — one located at the Student Services Building and the other at Gate 8 at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium. 

Spradlin said people will be notified roughly one week in advance and proactive testing will also be offered in a targeted way based on contact tracing. Students living in residence halls will be tested starting in August through the beginning of September with proactive tests.

“If we were to see a surge in Austin, the commercial labs may say we can only test hospitalized patients or can only test these limited populations, and it would limit testing supply,” said Susan Hochman, a public health communicator for the University. “We are not as sensitive to that because we have our own in-house capacity.”

Symptomatic students, faculty and staff will be tested at the 27th Street Garage testing site. These tests will be charged to their insurance, and the University will cover the costs of the tests for those whose tests are not covered.

The University recently purchased three additional Abbott brand rapid testing machines that will allow for 100 more symptomatic tests each day and give results within 15 minutes, Spradlin said. 

“We don't have a limit (on symptomatic tests) because we can do hundreds of tests right now, through our facility,” Spradlin said. “I can't envision a scenario when we would say we've done all we can do. We can always collect the swabs and send (them) out assuming that we have access to testing supplies.”

Business sophomore Melanie Che, who was tested for COVID-19 this spring, said she is concerned about the spread of COVID-19 in West Campus. Che said when her testing was done at home, she paid $50 out of pocket. 

“If UT were to provide the testing on campus and they asked us to do it, I would definitely go and do it,” Che said. “(But) if they were to somehow be able to provide free COVID testing, that would definitely encourage students to go and check themselves more.”